It is typical of Cookie Lavagetto that he should not want his story written. "I prefer to remain in obscurity," he says. Only a man as modest as Lavagetto would consider obscurity his. Fourteen years ago he lit up the sky over Brooklyn with his famous pinch-hit double in the World Series. Today, as manager of the Minnesota Twins, he is regarded as one of the best baseball men in the game.
Lavagetto, the first manager in Minnesota history, is being treated royally. Hotel managers dote on him. People want his autograph. He has his own radio show just before each home game. An auto dealer has given him a new car to drive. At the stadium parking lot attendants call him " Mr. Lavagetto."
Nothing like this ever happened to Cookie during the long, dismal years when the Twins were the Washington Senators. He was treated with respect by the fans, but then so were the groundskeepers. Now, in Minneapolis-St. Paul, he enjoys uncritical admiration and, better still, a team with a winning look. Lavagetto has been preparing his team for success for several years—it might even have happened in Washington if the team had stayed there—but Cookie would take credit for the improvement only if it were forced upon him. His humility is sincere, for Lavagetto is not a man of guile. After a recent game, a reporter asked him if he didn't think his right fielder had been playing too deep for a certain hitter. "My mind was on other channels at the moment," Lavagetto answered. "I didn't notice where he was playing."
Lavagetto's honesty is refreshing in a business riddled with deception. Several seasons ago Cookie was asked which team he thought would win the pennant. " Yankees by 15 games," he replied directly. A few days later he received a telegram from Commissioner Ford Frick warning him that such talk was bad for baseball. Lavagetto parried neatly by telling Frick he was merely trying to make the Yankees overconfident, so his Washington Senators could beat them.
Cookie's face does not suggest a sense of humor. He is a severe-looking man with a swarthy complexion, heavy brows and a hawk nose. At 46, his black hair is flecked with gray, and there are deep creases on his forehead and around his dark brown eyes. Only when he smiles does he look anything but angry.
His outward manner sometimes appears gruff. He may toss off a carefully composed question with a syllable, leaving the asker disorganized. He may not answer at all, but often this is because he has not heard the question. "I have a tin ear," he explains. He can sit for minutes in brutal silence after a question, giving the impression of annoyance. Then he will start to talk, and it is clear that he was not annoyed or puzzled but was simply trying to frame a thoughtful answer. He is extremely careful in his choice of words. When someone told him that one of his players looked unsure of himself at the plate, Lavagetto said, "You have detected what is known as pressing." Sometimes he misuses the language, but always colorfully. Recently he talked about the "strange twist of faith" that led him into baseball. He also hated "to leave the home folks down" after the Twins' opening loss in Minnesota, an understandable slip after so many years as a player in Brooklyn.
Cookie Lavagetto arrived in Brooklyn via Pittsburgh and Oakland, his home town. He was born Enrico Atillio Lavagetto, but when he was confirmed Atillio was changed to Arturo. On his first day at school his teacher told him that in English, Enrico was either Henry or Harry. Enrico discussed it with his parents and decided on Harry.
It was as a boy that he met Mary Poggi, the girl he later married. "Our families used to go mushroom-hunting together in the hills above Oakland," Lavagetto recalls. "We'd go up after the heavy rains. Mushrooms make a swelling in the ground, so we'd take a stick and scrape away the leaves. Sometimes there's a mushroom, sometimes not. You'd never know." Today Mary and Cookie live with their two sons, Mike, 13, and Ernie, 12, in Orinda, not far from their mushroom-hunting grounds.
Twist of faith
Young Harry got his baseball break—the "twist of faith" he referred to—in the spring of 1933. He had been unsuccessful in establishing himself as a player, and his father was anxious for him to go to work, collecting trash. By chance, a benefit game was arranged between a group of major league players living in the area and some local sandlotters. Lavagetto didn't get into the game until the fifth inning, but the first time he came up the bases were loaded. Harry drove them all in with a double and found himself swamped with offers after the game. He signed with Cookie DeVincenzi, owner of the Oakland team. Harry became known as "Cookie's boy" and, eventually, just plain Cookie.